It might not have been the game most anticipated, but it ended the way almost everyone expected, with Stanford players carrying the Axe off the field in celebration for the sixth year in a row. As David Shaw said afterwards, "There's no one in the program who's lost the Axe."
The Cardinal won the Axe on Saturday night in a game unlike any this season. The first two drives of the game did nothing but tip the field a bit in Stanford's favor, so when the offense came out for its second possession, Kevin Hogan brought his team to the line of scrimmage at the Stanford 48. After experimenting with two running backs not named Christian McCaffrey, Hogan handed the ball to Number Five on 3rd and 2, and McCaffrey came up with a simple little run that spoke to his greatness. It was a quick inside handoff, and McCaffrey had the first down almost immediately. When he broke through the hole, however, he saw daylight to his right and ran for more than fifteen yards on a direct ninety degree angle towards the sideline before turning back upfield for what would be a 24-yard gain. He gained 18 yards on the next three plays before giving way to Remound Wright at the two. The Vulture took it in from there, and the Cardinal led 7-0.
Even though Stanford had handled the Bears easily for the past five years, the presence of Jared Goff in the Cal huddle is enough to raise concern for any team, and he went to work quickly during his second possession. Stanford's defensive philosophy has been clear for the past five or six years: allow short completions, but keep everything in front of the defense and make every tackle. (The Oregon game was lost because these rules weren't followed.) The general idea behind this plan is that it forces teams to take yardage in small chunks instead of big ones, and the likelihood of mistakes becomes higher the more plays a team has to run.
On this drive the Bears ran fourteen plays as they marched methodically down the field, converting an early 4th and 1 along the way. Goff completed seven of nine passes before arriving at 1st and goal at the Stanford 2, but here the Stanford defense stiffened. For much of the drive -- and for much of the night after this -- the Stanford defensive backs laid back, giving Cal's receivers space and allowing short completions, but with the field shortened and the deep threat eliminated, the young corners were able to play more aggressively. A first down run was stuffed, and two incompletions later the Bears were forced to settle for a field goal, a big win for the Stanford defense.
After two long drives (10 plays for Stanford, 8 for Cal) that produced no points, the Cardinal took over at their own 20 and did their best Oregon impression. The first two plays of the drive produced runs of 11 and 12 yards from McCaffrey followed by an eight-yard run from Bryce Love to the Cal 49. If you missed the play that came next, don't worry. You'll see it again on December 12th when ESPN airs McCaffrey's highlight package during the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York.
Hogan dropped back to pass looking to set up a screen to McCaffrey, but the play looked doomed almost immediately. A Cal defender had sniffed out the play and looked ready to pull down McCaffrey three yards behind the line of scrimmage. But McCaffrey was able to spin away, only to be met by another defender three or four yards later. After pivoting out of that tackle, he burst upfield, skipped past another Cal Bear with a swivel of his hips, then used a couple nice blocks from his wide receivers on his way to the end zone. It was spectacular and ordinary all at once. Few players in America would've been able to score on that botched screen play, but it wasn't at all surprising that McCaffrey pulled it off. He's just that good.
With the Cardinal now leading 14-3, Goff and the Bears came back out on the field and put together another long drive, once again inching down the field one short pass at a time. Yes, there was a 21-yard pass to convert a 3rd and 2, but only one other play gained as much as eleven yards. Once again, however, when the field grew short, the Cal offense had trouble finding space to operate, and the drive ground to a halt at the Stanford 11. Another Matt Anderson field goal made the score 14-6.
With just 51 seconds left on the clock in the second quarter, it seemed like the two teams would head to the locker rooms separated by just one score, but then Christian McCaffrey happened. Teams have obviously done their best to avoid kicking to him, but recently Stanford has thrown some wrinkles into their return package to make this more difficult. To persuade Cal against kicking short, they actually put all four running backs (McCaffrey, Love, Wright, and Sanders) on the return team tonight, and they stacked McCaffrey and Love in the middle of the field, only splitting them at the last minute. On this particular kickoff, McCaffrey guessed correctly and split to the right. He fielded the kick, ran hard into the wedge, then veered out towards wide open spaces along the right sideline. One defender got a hand on his hip along the way, but nothing that was enough to slow him down. He streaked to the end zone, giving the Cardinal a 21-6 lead, giving Glyn Milburn something to worry about, giving Heisman voters something to ponder, and giving all the rest of us something at which to marvel.
McCaffrey's first half heroics obscured something that the halftime statistics revealed. Cal was dominating all aspects of the game except for the scoreboard. They had a large edge in plays, total yards, and time of possession, and they were only a score or two away from making the game more interesting than Stanford fans would've liked.
The Bears took the second half kickoff, and once again Goff led them down the field, this team using larger bites. Tailback Tre Watson ran around the left end for a 28-yard gain, and Goff hit Maurice Harris for 23 yards on the next play to get to the Stanford 16, but once again the Cardinal defense tightened and forced a field goal. 21-9.
After an uninspiring three-and-out from the Stanford offense, Goff was back on the field again, and this time he mounted a 13-play drive that was more successful. When an intentional grounding penalty pushed the Bears into 3rd and 18 at their own 39, it looked like the defense would get off the field, but a 19-yard pass from Goff to Trevor Davis kept the drive alive. Tre Watson ran for 19 more yards on the next play, and Goff hit Davis for twenty more on the play after that, and the Bears had 1st and goal at the Stanford 5. This time Goff converted on a beautiful pass over Darius Powe's shoulder in the corner of the end zone, and suddenly the Bears trailed by only five at 21-16. Suddenly the game was in doubt. Suddenly the Axe was in jeopardy.
Having learned from his mistakes, Cal coach Sonny Dykes opted for a short kick to upback Barry Sanders, but the price paid was a short field. Stanford took over on their own 39, and they rode McCaffrey hard. There were two early incompletions to tight end Austin Hooper, but aside from that it was one running play after another. McCaffrey carried six times for 44 yards to move the ball to the Cal 15 at the close of the third quarter, then Hogan hit Francis Owusu with a short pass on the first play of the fourth to set up 1st and goal at the 1. You know what happened after that -- Remound Wright circled the stadium a few times before swooping down into the Stanford backfield, taking the handoff from Hogan, and pounding his way into the end zone to give the Cardinal a 28-16 lead.
A quick note about The Vulture. The touchdown was Wright's sixth score in two games against Cal, and his twelfth of the season. I suppose McCaffrey could be getting some of these short-yardage touchdowns and third down conversions, but Wright has become a weapon that's too good not to use in these situations. He now has 25 career rushing touchdowns, which puts him sixth on Stanford's all-time list, just ahead of Darren Nelson and trailing only Gerhart, Taylor, Vardell, Gaffney, and Muster. (In case you're wondering, those are the six greatest backs in Stanford history, so Wright's in pretty good company.)
If that score took some of the wind out of the Bears' sails, the next two series finished them off. Still trailing by only twelve points, Goff took over at his own 14 and came out firing. He leaned heavily on wide receiver Bryce Treggs on this drive and throughout the night. Treggs, who would finish with 7 catches for 102 yards, knows something about Big Game history. His father, Brian, also played wide receiver for Cal, and prior to the 1991 Big Game, he vowed the Bears would win, even going so far as promising to move to Palo Alto if they didn't. They didn't win that game, and the Palo Alto city council eventually passed a resolution absolving Treggs of his commitment to relocate (seriously, all that really happened), but that legacy has stayed with the younger Treggs. It's interesting how similar the careers of the father and son have been -- Brian: 161 receptions for 2,236 yards and 14 touchdowns; Bryce: 186/2216/13. And there's another similarity. Each spent four years at Cal without touching the Axe.
So there was still almost an entire quarter to play when Cal took over following that last Stanford score, but it still felt like desperation time for the Bears. Goff and Treggs connected three times for 35 yards on the series, but the game hung in the balance when Cal found itself facing 4th and 15 at the Stanford 22. A 39-yard field goal would've brought the Bears to within nine points, but those who have criticized David Shaw for taking those points in similar situations would do well to remember what happened next.
Goff's pass to Maurice Harris fell incomplete, turning the ball over to Stanford, and the Cardinal wasted little time putting the game on ice. McCaffrey carried the ball four times for eight, ten, six, and six yards again, all setting up the play that would break Cal's back. Bryce Love lined up in the right slot and ran into the backfield at the snap. Hogan faked the handoff to McCaffrey, drawing all eleven sets of eyes on the Cal defense, before handing it to Love instead. With two linemen pulling in front of him, Love had no trouble getting to the outside and sprinting untouched into the end zone for a 35-16 Stanford lead.
The game was effectively over at that point. Two possessions later Goff would find Treggs for a 31-yard touchdown (he was clearly down at the one, but the officials were probably getting a bit sleepy at that point, so they chose not to review it) giving the game a final score of 35-22, but that was just bookkeeping.
There was another bit of bookkeeping that's worth mentioning. Stanford took over after that score with a 13-point lead and 1:44 to play. This normally would've been a situation to insert some of the backups, and they might even have been able to kneel out the clock, but someone must have whispered into David Shaw's ear and told him close McCaffrey was to Glyn Milburn's 25-year-old single-game record for all purpose yardage. Milburn had put on a show in the 1990 Big Game, but his performance is largely forgotten because of how that game ended. The 379 yards he gained that day, however, have endured in the Stanford record book for two and a half decades.
As McCaffrey took his stance behind Hogan on first down, he sat at 363 yards, just 16 shy of the record. He took a handoff from Hogan, pounded through a hole at the line of scrimmage, skipped outside to the right, and gained 23 yards and a piece of Stanford history. Three more yards on the next play game him 389 on the night, a staggering total which included 192 yards rushing.
After the game David Shaw said out loud what all Stanford fans have been saying for several weeks now: "If anybody's seen a football player better than Christian McCaffrey this year, tell me. Show him to me. I have not seen anybody in America like this kid. He is truly, truly special." How special has he been? Take a look:
- He has now rushed for more than one hundred yards in nine straight games, the longest streak in school history and the longest current streak in America.
- His 1,546 yards rushing this season, which is the third-highest total in Stanford history, ranks second in the nation to Leonard Fournette (1,582).
- With Stanford now assured of playing at least three more games, McCaffrey only needs to average 148 APY per game to break Barry Sanders's all-time record.
- He ranks third in the nation in kick return average (31.3 yards per return) and fifth in total yardage (813).
- He leads the nation in all-purpose yardage, more than 500 yards ahead of his closest competitor.
- In addition to leading the conference in rushing, he also leads all Pac-12 running backs with 416 receiving yards.
I don't know about you, but that sounds like a pretty solid Heisman résumé. There's no doubt that we'll see him in New York next month; the only questions is whether or not he'll bring the trophy home with him.
But this game was about more than just Christian McCaffrey. This Stanford team finished 8-1 in the Pac-12, the deepest conference in America, and secured a trip to the conference championship game in two weeks. Should they win that game (against either USC or UCLA), the Cardinal would likely play in its third Rose Bowl in four years, an accomplishment that was unimaginable a decade ago. (The playoffs are still a remote possibility not worth discussing until after next week's game against Notre Dame.)
Variables surrounding the Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoffs will be determined in the coming weeks, but there is one constant that cannot be ignored. For the sixth consecutive year Stanford has claimed the Axe, tangible evidence of a job well done. Even though there are other goals yet to be determined, take a moment or two to savor that fact. A few days from now families will gather around dinner tables throughout America and share sentiments of thanks. Most will then pull a knife from the drawer to carve their turkeys, but Stanford fans will carve that bird with an Axe!